Last summer I took a motorcycle journey on my own from Shihezi, Xinjiang, the quiet, dusty college town where I had been teaching English for a year, up across a finger of the Gobi Desert and across the Mongolian Altai Mountains, riding over the oceanic steppe all the way to the smoky, sprawling capital, UlaanBaatar. The trip took just over two weeks to complete and covered over 1700 miles (less than 10 percent on paved roads), and looking back it is clearly the most visceral and meaningful trip I have ever taken.
|My ultimate route, extracted from GPS data|
I had no grand purpose to my wandering, I simply wanted to get out there, to travel alone across the most remote place I could get to, in this case, western Mongolia. Pure wanderlust. My parents had apoplectic fits as I tried to explain the trip to them over a patchy skype connection a few hours before I set off. I couldn’t logically support my reason for taking the trip at the time, for taking on the considerable attendant risks alone and with little support. Yet I felt something strongly driving me to get on the bike and head out into the void. It sounds corny but I knew I had do it, precisely because it would force me into situations that would be sink or swim, that would require self-reliance of the highest order. A self-inflicted coming-of-age ritual, perhaps.
I don’t want to give the impression that this was an entirely impulsive decision. There had been months of planning: obtaining driver’s permits, visas, many hours poring over adventure forums for details like river crossings and logistics, a near complete overhaul of my bike with my local Chinese mechanic, assembling gear lists, medicines, insurance, and mapping out a detailed gps route across miles of areas the map left blank.
Yet despite all of that, I knew that I could never fully prepare for every eventuality, and there would be snags, hiccups, headaches, and just straight problems. When I asked his opinion of the plan, my nigh guru/mechanic Lao Deng replied, “Of course there will be problems! Many Problems! The real question is how you will deal with them.”
At its most rewarding, travel is a series of challenges to be overcome. Obstacles that force you out of your usual routine and quotidian dogma to engage with the foreign, a naturally uncomfortable state. It helps you to know yourself, to eviscerate the biases and prejudices you may have about other cultures, ethnicities, and people in general, and to begin to know the many faces of god. The painful parts of travel are commonly the moments you are growing the most. At the time it can feel difficult, but afterwards you can smile sympathetically at how the problems you faced were in many cases a consequence of your own ignorance. Thus through travel we can probe and correct the near infinity of gaps in our whole perspective, like patiently ironing out wrinkles in a massive bed sheet, one at a time.
I hope to share some of my experience with you, both for my own reflection and hopefully to encourage you to take a trip as well. Nothing is out of reach for a patient and persistent mind, so get out there!
|Sunset a few miles east of Dzuungovi, July 12th 2013|